Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This One Knocked the Stuffing Out of Me...

Welcome back! Stupid productivity getting in the way of blogging. The semester is back in full swing which means that I'm back teaching and doing research and studying for my general exam (October 3!) and trying to find time to do a billion things. So I figured I'd jump start my productivity with catching up on my blogging. I guess I'll start with the adventure that was trying to bake two things at once. Commence chaos!

Oh wait, before I start: apparently the tarelles weren't bad. In fact, people thought they were really good. Maybe my taste buds were scrambled that day or maybe I just don't like them but in any case, I am officially removing the assessment that they are the world's worst cookie. My apologies to the Cake Boss. Except not really because as one of the projects I was making on this occasion, I made his Eclairs. Sort of.

Let me explain. I planned to make eclairs. I figured that it was time to get away from the cookie recipes in the Cake Boss book before completely writing off the cookbook. So the next section is pastries. And the first recipe for pastries is eclairs. Step 1: make the pastry shells. Ok, cool. That was pretty easy. Mix up the dough and put it in a piping bag and pipe out eclair shapes. Easy. I'm getting to be pretty good at piping now. I baked them up and they puffed nicely. Success! Well, short lived success. It was at this point that I noticed that the pastry cream has to be refrigerated overnight. Oops. However, the shells can be frozen and defrosted for use whenever. Awesome! Problem solved. Oh, I should also mention that the way to test if these were done was if they come off the pan easily when picked up with a thumb and index finger. Super scientific. May have ended up with some very hot fingers.

It was about this point that I got a text from a friend informing me that she finally got a job. Yay for jobs! And how should one celebrate a new job? With stuffed cupcakes, of course! So while the pastry shells were baking, I perused my cookbooks for a recipe for stuffed cupcakes. I didn't have one. But hey, I bake a lot. I have the knowledge and the power to mix and match recipes! So I decided to use the dark chocolate cupcakes that I've made previously from America's Test Kitchen and stuff and frost them with cream cheese frosting. Did I mention that I was baking all this late at night with the added pressure that I was going to be headed home to Jersey the next day? No? Well, I was. I may have been a little crazy.

So, the most logical course of action to me was to whip up the cream cheese frosting in Connecticut and bring it to New Jersey where I would bake and stuff the cupcakes. Completely logical, right? Sure. I whipped up the cream cheese frosting quickly enough (though it was actually a huge pain because I kept having to wash all of my materials) and stuck it in the fridge. Oh yeah, and I was simultaneously cooking dinner. Is the imagery of my kitchen mess clear enough for you by now? Yes? Good.

Ok, so where am I? Dinner's done, frosting's done, pastry shells done. Last thing tonight is the pastry cream! Did you know that custard is hard to make? I didn't. If I had, I wouldn't have tried to do this late at night after having baked for hours already. So, for those of you who don't know, custard is a tricky thing. Also, choosing what size pots and bowls to use is a tricky thing. And when I say tricky, I mean "I'm bad at it." I started with my egg yolks, flour, and sugar in a small bowl. Bad idea. I could see immediately that that would be a problem. So I moved everything to the medium bowl. I had to whisk those ingredients together until "they lighten in color." The ingredients didn't seem to combine well. I kinda had lumpy crumbly egg yolk messes. But I figured it would all even out when I combined it with the milk. (It didn't.)

This is where things get dangerous with custard. You have to be extremely careful to not cook the eggs with the hot milk. To avoid that, you first temper your mixture with one cup of the hot milk and then add the whole mixture to the pot with the milk. It was at this point that I realized that I really could've used a bigger pot. It was also when I realized that the medium bowl wasn't going to be big enough and the big bowl was dirty. Ahhh! Plus at this point, you have to very carefully blend with a hand mixer while moving the pot on and off the heat so that the mixture boils but doesn't cook the yolks. So much multitasking! With one hand, I was mixing and with the other hand I was washing a bowl and at some point I had to add the butter as my "thickening agent" and it was a mess. I was supposed to end up with a mixture that was very thick but was instead pretty thin. Also, the bottom of my mixture totally just cooked. Like, egg yolk omelet on the bottom of the pan. But whatever, I'll just take the non-cooked part and use that and I'll just have a bit less than I wanted, right? Sigh. I think you can all see where this is going.

So, I covered my thin mixture and put it in the fridge overnight hoping that it would thicken up overnight. Apparently that's not how custards work. The next morning I got all excited to fill my eclairs. I sliced my pastry shells and I went to fill my pastry bag with the filling. Not happening. It was a thin drizzle of messy. So I started Googling quick fixes for custards. There really aren't any. They all say to start over except for one which said I could fold in some whipped cream. Hmm. I don't have whipped cream but I'm sad enough about my custard right now to go buy some. So I did. Don't use this quick fix. It doesn't work. Here's a picture of my sad sad attempt to fill eclairs:

It's not attractive. But there are bright sides. The first is that the pastry shells looked good so they went right back into the freezer to be used another day. The second is that the custard actually tasted pretty good so barring my inability to make custard, this recipe probably would've turned out well. So the pastry shells are awaiting a second attempt at custard which will happen sometime in the future when I am not in a delicate mental state.

So with this failure hanging over me, I headed home to make the cupcakes. Baking cupcakes is easy. I had no problem here. Stuffing cupcakes is a different story. I found one thing online that recommended just putting your filling in a pastry bag with a long tip, jabbing it into the cupcake and squeezing. Theoretically, the cupcakes will puff up with the filling and it will be wonderful. There was even a video demonstrating this phenomenon! All that happened for me was getting a very narrow tube of filling into the cupcake. No puffing up or anything. So I tried a different approach. I used a small knife to cut a cone out of the middle of the cupcake, filled the cupcake, cut off the tip of the cone, and returned the rest of the cupcake cone to its rightful place. I referred to that last step as "putting the hat back on" because I was a little slap happy at this point. In hindsight, since I was frosting these cupcakes with the same filling anyway, I really didn't have to put the hat back on. Regardless, these cupcakes were freakin' delicious. The cream cheese with the dark chocolate complemented each other perfectly and when you sliced the cupcake in half, it looked beautiful. See for yourself:

Pretty good, right? They were so yummy. So, one success and one fail and one very very tired baker.

A Disney Moment: Hercules

Ah, the final member of this group of five (finally). Hercules scores a 2/5 and let me just say that I really love it. The villain is fun and sharp. The references to Greek mythology are at times blatant but at other times subtle. I recommend suspending all your knowledge of Greek mythology before watching because otherwise, nothing will make sense and it will only make you angry. I love love love the music (with the notable exception of "Go the Distance") and the Greek chorus narrators and the sassy heroine and Danny Devito as Phil and the cameo of Scar and yay! I just really like this movie. It's quick but it doesn't feel too quick to me and the comic relief characters have pretty minimal screen time (they should have even less but I'm willing to let that go). Overall, I like it. Whew, it took a long time to finish those 5 movies.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

World's Worst Cookies

Well, for those of you getting frustrated with my competency in the kitchen, here's a treat for you. As an aside, is there an opposite to "ineptitude"? I'm pretty sure "eptitude" isn't a word. Just wondering if there's a positive root word for ineptitude. Ok, moving on...

So, the Cake Boss is failing me. I know it's been a while since I've baked from the Cake Boss cookbook because I got distracted by the really yummy recipes in Martha and America's Test Kitchen. So I decided that it was time to get back to this book. This is the only cookbook that I am cooking through in order so that meant that the next cookies in the book were Tarelles (i.e. vanilla cookies). Ok, vanilla cookies. Not terribly interesting but I've had good vanilla cookies before so why not? I had a slight problem with these because the recipe calls for pastry flour and I couldn't find pastry flour in any of my supermarkets. However, the recipe does say that all-purpose flour can be substituted so I didn't think too much of it.

First step was to mix together sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Easy. Made a bit of a mess with the vanilla but no big deal there. Next step was to add shortening. This was almost a big problem because I was almost 1/2 a cup short! I say almost because I finished off my container of Crisco and thought I had another but did not. Eventually I found Crisco sticks in my cabinet though. Success! By the way, I'm not a Crisco diva that I need to have the sticks but I had a coupon for them so I bought them.

Then I had to paddle in some milk until "thoroughly absorbed". I disagree with that "thoroughly absorbed" assessment. I was mixing it like crazy but it still looked like watery cottage cheese for several minutes. It wasn't very attractive. But fine, eventually, I managed to get it combined-ish. Add flour and baking powder and I'm all done with the actual combining of ingredients.

Now comes the super fun part. I had to roll out these cookies into rings. There were very specific directions about rolling half the dough into a 30 inch rope and then cutting pieces based on another measurement and then rolling those out and initially, I sort of followed that. It was pretty unnecessary though, as long as you're confident that you can form uniform-sized cookies. So the measurements weren't my problem. My problem was the dough itself. Rolling ropes of dough can be really awful if you've got a super sticky dough or a very crumbly dough (both of which I've dealt with and documented here) but this dough was neither of those things. It's hard to describe though. It didn't stick to the surface and it didn't stick to my hands. It also did not stick to itself which made forming complete rings basically impossible. The other problem is that it kept falling apart as I rolled it. I don't mean that it crumbled. I mean that, as I rolled a rope of dough, if I rolled any piece too thinly, it became two ropes. This made the concept of making a "Twisty Tarelle" completely impossible. To do that, I had to fold the dough rope in half and then roll it against the work surface so it would make a spiral. It did not. It just broke. A lot. After trying this for several minutes, I just gave up and stuck to the regular tarelles.

So eventually, I delicately rolled out two cookie trays' worth of these cookies. And realized that I had barely used half the dough. Awesome. I baked them for the appropriate amount of time and until the bottoms were slightly browned as specified. Pretty sure they were baked perfectly. I put them on the racks to cool while I rolled the rest of the cookies. No big problems there besides those already mentioned. At this point though, I had the sneaking suspicion that these cookies might be a bit bland so I decided to add some sprinkles. The picture shows some of the cookies with sprinkles so why not? I'll tell you why not. Because sprinkles don't stick to the cookies. I tried. The only way to get the sprinkles to stick was to really press them into the dough which destroyed the shape of the cookie so after attempting this with three cookies, I gave up. Here's a picture of the finished product before I give you a taste assessment though:

These cookies taste bad. I had my boyfriend taste one at the same time as me and we looked at each other and he said, "they're not bad..." which usually means they're not good. I was a half step away from spitting mine out. They are so DRY. There's no moisture to them so it's like trying to eat seven saltines or a mouthful of flour or something. I've only had this type of texture once before when I tasted a cookie and it crumbled to dust in my mouth and I almost choked on the cookie dust. At least I didn't make those cookies though. Those may be worse. These are really bad too though. I don't even know how I should have made them better.

So at this point, I'm pretty displeased with Cake Boss. His cookies are very hit or miss. I'm thinking that I'll try to make one of his pastries next to see if he's better with those. These cookies though...thumbs down. So, anyone want some terrible cookies? I have about 40 of them and nobody to eat them! Seriously, suggestions of what to do with these are welcome. I don't know if I want to subject anyone I like to them though. Sigh. What a disappointment.

Oh, and let me just put in a plug for the contest I've entered. I am competing in's 2 minute thesis contest. If I get enough votes, I will get my thesis turned into a comic which would be totally cool. Voting ends on August 20 so if you would please vote and share with your friends to extend my network of voters, that'd be terrific. Thanks in advance and I promise, if I win, there will be cookie sharing. Here's the link to vote: The title of my audio clip is "[Intentionally Left Missing]"

A Disney Moment: Hunchback of Notre Dame

There's no way to sum up this movie besides this statement: My sister and I rented this movie from the library FIVE times. That's right. For about a month and a half, we would rent Hunchback and then stare at it and not want to watch it. We really really didn't want to watch this movie. Finally, we settled down to get it over with (I think we may have rewarded ourselves with fast food first) and well, I guess I didn't hate it quite as much as I thought I would. Which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

I don't really know what bothers me about this film. The villain isn't exactly scary. That's not to say that he isn't evil. He's probably the most evil Disney villain what with all the fire and brimstone and wanting to burn gypsies. But unless you're an adult and thinking "he's one amoral SOB" then he doesn't particularly inspire fear. I will always argue that Ursula is a better villain than Frollo is.

I think the movie tries to cram too many plot lines in and I don't really care for the other male protagonist (you know, the one that isn't Quasimodo that I can't remember the name of). The music is ok and the animation is fine but it just never grabbed me. Also, the gargoyles. Are they just Quasimodo's subconscious speaking or are they really alive? This bugged me. I don't mind if we have talking statues but the ambiguity of it made me uneasy. So, in this grouping, it's a 5/5. But at least we're done with it and the librarians can stop thinking that we're unhealthily obsessed with Hunchback.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Wedding Cookies

Hello everyone! Welcome to A Statistician Bakes: Wedding Edition. I was recently a bridesmaid in my very good friend, Laura,'s wedding. To help contribute to the big day, I decided to make some cookies. Because that's what I do. And because we had to be at the venue from 9 am till the ceremony at 4 pm and I figured we'd get hungry. I really wanted to make Mexican Wedding Cookies because, well, that's the cliche thing to do. Then I looked at the recipe and realized there was powdered sugar on them and that seemed like a phenomenally bad idea considering that our dresses were black. So my criteria for these cookies had to be: yummy and no-mess. I landed on the ever-classic Snickerdoodle (Martha's recipe, of course) and Buttery Pecan Rounds. I said no to chocolate because who wants chocolate in their teeth during a wedding and I said no to anything heavy because that would really impede the getting drunk process required for any good wedding.

I won't talk to you about the Snickerdoodles because I've made them so many times before so I'll talk about the Buttery Pecan Rounds. They're super easy. No really, like, 4 ingredients easy. Ok, so it's not 4 ingredients, it's 6 but still, that's pretty easy. May I interrupt for a moment to lament the fact that I haven't baked in my own kitchen for about a month now? I love my mom's kitchen but I think my Connecticut kitchen is crying out in neglect. Makes me sad.

Ok, sidebar over. There's honestly nothing worth talking about with these cookies though. Combine salt and brown sugar. Mix in egg yolk. Add flour and salt. Mix in chopped pecans. That's it. I was supposed to add half pecans for decoration on top but I wasn't feeling that so I skipped it. So...that's basically it for these cookies. These cookies were in the light and delicate section of Martha's book because I figured that'd be good. Oh! I also went to the trouble to buy cardstock to separate my new very large cookie tin. Ok, so maybe it's not a cookie tin and is actually one of those big containers that hold three types of popcorn but it serves its purpose! Here's a picture of the finished product:

As far as the taste, the Snickerdoodles were great as always. The pecan cookies were good but a little too bland for me. If I make these again, I think I'll add a bit more sugar or maybe some vanilla. They were very light and delicate though. Oh, and to round out this entry, congratulations Laura and Pat! Here's a picture of me with the bride (who also happens to be my friend for the past 20 years...which makes me feel old...)

A Disney Moment: Pocahontas

Oh, this movie. I liked it as a kid. I belted out "Colors of the Wind" with the rest of the world. But when I rewatched it...well, let's just say it was an experience. Let me set the stage: my sister and I were all geared up to watch and my mom would occasionally flit in and out to see if the movie was over yet. Apparently she REALLY dislikes Pocahontas. Which I guess is understandable if you have two daughters who watched it obsessively in their youth and sang along (badly) to all of the songs.

First of all, I don't like the character animation in this one. I'm sure this is a controversial point of view. But in my household, this was a rage-inducing experience. "Her ass is HUGE!" and "Why does she have gigantic calves one second and then by the next scene they're gone???" are just a couple of the issues we have with Pocahontas. My personal issue is her hair. It defies all laws of physics. And you know what? If the wind keeps pushing strands of her hair the same direction, eventually she won't have any hair left on one side of her head. It's illogical.

Ok, that aside, the rest isn't too bad. I have mixed feelings about Grandmother Willow. I truly appreciate the background animation which is beautiful. I can't understand how Pocahontas magically understands English all of a sudden. And don't give me that "listen with your heart" stuff because that's crazy. Honestly, I buy characters talking to animals more than I buy a suddenly bilingual protagonist.

Also, my mom had a couple gems to add when watching this movie. Including, "you know why Grandmother Willow's bark medicine works so well? It's aspirin!" I should point out that my mom is a chemist. And my favorite: "She is picking up a baby bear cub! The mother would have mauled her by now! This is just teaching children to pick up bear cubs! Why is Pocahontas stupid enough to pick up a bear cub?" This went on and on during the rest of "Colors of the Wind" and was completely hilarious.

I know there's a lot of Pocahontas love out there but I just didn't feel it. It wasn't a great masterpiece. It was ok. It was a 4/5 in this grouping. I will be bracing myself in preparation for all the people who are about to tell me I'm wrong.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Please Sir, I Want S'more(s)!

Welcome back! To put this in perspective for you, I baked this dessert for a 4th of July barbecue. Yeah. I've been a blogging slacker. What else is new, right? So, my aunt requested a sweet dessert for the barbecue and I got her to narrow that down to chocolatey sweet (as opposed to fruity sweet) so that was my jumping point for choosing a dessert. After perusing my grandmother's cookbooks (because this adventure all takes place down the shore) I finally found it: Chocolate S'mores cake! How good does that sound? I can tell you're drooling already. Oh, I should also mention that this recipe comes from the Food and Wine Annual Cookbook 2009.

Step 1 was to gather all my ingredients and supplies. I cannot express enough how hard it is cooking in someone else's kitchen. I swear, if I had been in my kitchen, this recipe would've been about 1000x easier. Forget matters like figuring out where the teaspoon measures are kept. No, I'm talking about needing to go out and buy 8 inch square baking pans and a candy thermometer and basic staples like flour and sugar. Let's just say that shopping for the ingredients (on the 4th of July, no less) took a bit longer than expected.

But fine, all materials gathered, I was ready to go. The first thing to do was basically make a chocolate cake. This part was uneventful. There was a slight moment of horror when we discovered that the vegetable oil was being kept in an olive oil container (which made us seriously question what oil we had been cooking with earlier in the week) but we got it sorted out and I'm fairly sure we used the correct oil in the cake.

While the cake was baking, my mom and I set about completing two different tasks. She first thoroughly cleaned the not-so-oft used KitchenAid mixer and then set about removing seeds from a vanilla bean. This requires some explanation. And when I say "explanation" I mean "reason that I was misled by the recipe." The list of ingredients states "1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped." Think about that with me. Doesn't that sound like you want the 1/2 bean sans seeds? It certainly did to me. So my mom was scraping out and discarding the seeds. When I perused the actual text of the recipe though, it referred to combining egg whites and the vanilla seeds. Oops. And when I say "oops" I actually mean "that was really poorly written and was a pain in the ass." Anyone disagree with that assessment? Anyone?

Ok, so while all that was going on, I was in the middle of a sticky situation. First I had to combine gelatin and water in a small bowl and let it sit. No problem there. Then I had to boil corn syrup and sugar together and cook until it was precisely 250 degrees. So I was staring at a candy thermometer for a while. I heated it perfectly and then took it off the heat as directed. I conversed with my mom over the vanilla bean incident and then noticed the gelatin that was still sitting on the counter not doing anything. Hmm. Something about that didn't seem right to me. My mom started beating the egg whites and vanilla seeds to form stiff peaks while I reread the recipe to figure out where the gelatin was supposed to go. Ah, apparently immediately after taking the corn syrup off the heat, I was supposed to mix in the gelatin. Whoops. Easily rectified though. I just reheated the corn syrup to the proper temperature and added the gelatin.

Now things get really ugly. We had to pour in the corn syrup/gelatin mixture while the mixer was still beating. This requires extremely good aim with an extremely sticky substance. We do not have extremely good aim. This stuff got all over the top of the beater, the sides of the bowl, the was bad. It was also so sticky that spatulas didn't really help with removing it from the pot. It was a very long process trying to get as much of this stuff into the egg whites as possible. By the way, in case anyone was wondering, I was better at pouring than my mom. Just saying.

Eventually we got things to cooperate. By now the cakes were cool and we spread our marshmallow mixture over the cakes. Then we had to toast the marshmallow with the broiler of the oven. Fortunately for me (and for the smoke alarms of the house), I have the marshmallow toasting job every Thanksgiving when we make our sweet potatoes so I'm a pro at not lighting the food on fire. (Yes, it can and does happen quite easily.) I browned the top of the marshmallows lightly (they probably could've gone longer but they were starting to smoke so I declared them done) and then set about the final steps of the assembly process.

We were directed to "insert the [broken] graham crackers into the marshmallow." Sadly, there is no picture of this dessert in the cookbook so we just used our imaginations to interpret what that meant. My mom artistically placed the graham crackers while I melted bittersweet chocolate for some chocolate drizzle. I drizzled like a professional chocolate drizzler (if that were a thing) and we ended up with some pretty awesome looking cakes!

As far as the taste goes, that's a bit of a story. You know what doesn't go well with chocolate s'mores cake? White wine. In fact, the combination is straight up disgusting. The problem I had was that when it came time to serve the cake, I was only halfway through a glass of really yummy white wine and I didn't want to put it down. DO NOT MIX WHITE WINE AND CHOCOLATE CAKE! This is your warning people. Red wine, good. White wine, BAD. So anyway, I think that influenced my opinion of the cake a bit. I thought it was a bit too sweet and the chocolate cake part was kinda meh. Everyone else liked it a lot though so it could've been my scrambled taste buds. Overall though, I'd call this a success. Even if it was a huge pain to bake.

A Disney Moment: Lion King

Ok, I feel like I don't even need to review this movie. I didn't even take any notes after watching it. It's clearly 1/5 in this group. It's just generally a great film. I get chills from just the opening notes of "Circle of Life." The music is all genius. It has one of the best villain songs (though I'll still argue that Ursula's is the best) and it's got a range of emotion that's lacking from a lot of the movies. Disney is obviously cruel for the whole Mufasa thing but it really is a poignant moment. The comedy bits work, the evil is scary, and the conclusion is satisfying. Not a single complaint. Is this film the best of the best? Maybe. The plan as it stands is to watch my top 5 movies in a crazy marathon once the mission is complete to assess what the true "best" Disney film is. For now though, let's just say it's in my top 5.

Friday, July 6, 2012

You See, Perry the Platypus...

Welcome people! I'm on vacation (which is today's excuse for the lack of blogging) but I have two baking adventures to regale you with from the past week. Ready? Let's go.

The first adventure you may judge me for. You see, while at the supermarket, picking up groceries for my California relatives who were coming to visit, my sister made an awesome discovery. She started "Ooooh!"-ing and pointing at the section with the Pillsbury place and bake cookies. You know, those holiday themed ones with ghosts or fireworks or shamrocks or school buses (yes, they do have school buses for September). I was quite confused because, while we do make these fairly often, I didn't think the firework ones were very special. Then she looked at me like I was an idiot and pointed out the holy grail of place and bake cookies: Perry the Platypus cookies.

Firstly, am I safe in assuming that people know what place and bake cookies are? If not, they are exactly what they sound like: pre-cut, preheat the oven, place on a pan, bake, and done. Of course, I make them best. No, seriously! My family has a knack for forgetting about them and destroying our pans with circles of burnt cookie. More importantly though, some of you may not be familiar with Perry the Platypus. Perry is from the Disney tv show Phineas and Ferb. I don't care how old you are, go watch this show because it is clever and has more adult humor than kid humor. And the kids in the show have a pet platypus named Perry. Perry is also a secret agent who fights the evil (sort of) Dr. Doofenshmirtz. This probably sounds crazy but Perry is the shit. And that's all I'll say about that so that I don't end up waxing poetic about the show. But go watch it. It's on Netflix instant.

So, before you judge me for not really baking (since place and bake cookies are in no way really baking) let me just say this: I'm on vacation. And sometimes, you need a place and bake cookie. And look how freaking cute they are!

Totally awesome, right? Oh, and they changed the recipe for these cookies! Now they are made with whole wheat flour which may not sound like a big deal but they taste so so much better than they used to (and they were already pretty good to begin with). Case and point: the package had 24 cookies. With 5 people eating the cookies, they were gone in, I kid you not, less than 7 minutes. Really good cookies. And then we all felt sick.

Hmm, I was going to talk about both my baking adventures in this post but now I'm thinking that the sun is shining and the beach is warm and I'll just blog about the other one later. (Read: tomorrow.) So in the meantime, I'll leave you with this:

A Disney Moment: Aladdin

We're finally onto a new group of five movies! It took a while, I know. So now we're at Aladdin. Aladdin was one of my favorites growing up, mostly because of the Genie and Jafar was a pretty solid villain. Sadly, I didn't enjoy it as much on a rewatch as I hoped. The whole beginning was really jumpy (which had to do with late changes in the plot but that's not my problem) and I felt like there were way too many comic relief characters. Seriously, we had Iago, Abu, Raja, and the sultan. You really only need two comic characters at most. They're typically pretty flat characters and can be a bit unnecessary. Honestly, I think one of the more complex characters was the flying carpet. I really respect how they got that much characterization out of a non-speaking carpet.

The best parts were definitely the parts with the Genie. I love his songs, his jokes, and especially the flow of his dialogue. He's pretty terrific. Overall, this movie scored a 3/5. It was fine but it didn't exactly knock my socks off. That said, I can still basically recite the movie from start to finish. I'm serious. My sister yells at me for doing it during the movie.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Finally Some Brownies

Hello all! Welcome to this week's edition of "I never have any of the stuff I need for baking!" Allow me to explain. I was invited to a friend's house for dinner last week so, of course, it is only polite and proper to arrive with a dessert. Unfortunately, I didn't have any good reference points for what the family might enjoy so I was flying blind a bit. I seriously considered my first attempt at pie but then decided that there was too much room for error there. I didn't know the situation with nut allergies or dislikes so finally I just threw up my hands and found a recipe for Ultimate Fudgy Brownies in the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. Everybody likes brownies.

Brownies. No problem, right? Wrong. First, I checked the ingredient list. It called for bittersweet chocolate, which naturally, I didn't have. But that's ok! They say you can substitute semisweet for the bittersweet. Perfect except...I'm out of chocolate. I don't even know how it happened but it did. I considered using a different recipe but then I decided to suck it up and go to the store. Before I left, I remembered to check the rest of the list. Ingredients: check. Baking implements: not so much. This recipe called for an 8 inch square baking pan. Searching for a baking pan, searching for a baking pan...nope, nothing. I briefly started doing the volume math to utilize my 13x9 inch baking pan and then decided that I'd probably need the pan eventually so I chose to buy an 8 inch square pan. Plus, my brain didn't really want to do the math.

So, last Wednesday, when it was about a hundred degrees in CT, I headed out to go to the store and to go to the gym. I got all the way to the supermarket before realizing that leaving chocolate in my car in 100 degree heat was a terrible idea. So I went to the gym first like a good girl. (Go me!) Then I picked up the pan and the chocolate (bittersweet and semisweet so I'm prepared for next time) and I was ready to go.

The first step I took was melting the butter, chocolate, and cocoa in the double boiler. That took a little while but I knew it would so that's why I did it first. See how smart I'm getting? While that was going, I combined the other ingredients (namely, sugar, eggs, vanilla and salt) and whisked them up real good. As the chocolate still wasn't completely melted, I set about preparing the pan for baking.

Here, America's Test Kitchen does something interesting. They reference the fact that brownies are a pain to cut and get out of the pan without getting them all messed up. Good point! That is usually a pain! I've heard tricks about putting the brownies in the freezer or trying to flip them upside down but nothing has been truly foolproof yet. This method is. ATK recommends a tin foil sling. That's right. Picture one piece of tin foil crossing the pan in one direction and a second piece of foil crossing the pan rotated 90 degrees from the first piece. This way, when you're done baking, you just pick up the bottom piece of foil and lift the whole thing out of the pan and onto the cutting board. I can't even tell you how well this worked. It was like magic. I highly recommend this method and hope I was clear in explaining it. Here's a picture of the nicely cut brownies in their tin foil sling:

As far as taste, these really are fudgy brownies. I think I may have overcooked them a bit because the sides were a little too crispy but the middles were all fudgy and delightful. Wouldn't do a thing differently with these brownies and they were easy and yummy so I'd definitely recommend these and would probably make them again. Success! And next time, I promise something more challenging! Really!

A Disney Moment: Beauty and the Beast

Ah, another classic. I've briefly discussed Beauty and the Beast already but now you get the in depth review. As I've mentioned, this movie ranks 2/5 right behind Little Mermaid. Little Mermaid just has a better villain. That was pretty much the tipping point for me. I still love Belle best and the music is still superb. But for some reason I was just more drawn to Little Mermaid than Beauty and the Beast. I'm not sure why. Oh wait, here's a theory...

I went to see Beauty and the Beast in 3D on the big screen when it came out. (Yes, that's how far behind I am with writing about these movies.) My sister and I timed it perfectly. We got up to this film just as it was being released and went on a weekday morning to the movies. A quick note on the 3D. I loved Lion King in 3D and I think Finding Nemo and Little Mermaid will all be great on 3D releases but I just didn't think Beauty and the Beast lent itself to the 3D conversion well. Not enough sweeping landscapes. It was fine but I didn't think the 3D added anything. Also, there was the matter of the creeper at the theater.

That's right, creeper. Middle aged guy came to the theater alone wearing a trenchcoat. Not strange yet. I see movies by myself all the time and I'd hate for someone to judge me for it. And the trenchcoat is an irrelevant point without the following information. Throughout the movie he was fidgeting constantly and a few times got up to presumably (?) use the restroom. Any one of these things: not creepy. All of them together: totally creepy. So, perhaps I was too distracted by the man "enjoying" the movie to truly enjoy it myself and maybe that contributed to my lower ranking on Beauty and the Beast than I might have expected. Also, eww.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ready in a Jiffy

If I handed you a cookbook filled with everything from breads to cookies to cakes to pastries and said "Pick anything you like for me to bake today," what would you choose? I'm talking sky's the limit here. You name it, it's in this book. So, given those options, would you choose Corn Muffins? I didn't think so. But my boyfriend did so that's what I made.

I dove into the corn muffin recipe in the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. The very first thing I did was defy the recipe because why wouldn't that be my way of doing things? The recipe specifies to grease the muffin tin rather than use the muffin papers. They argue that muffins baked in paper liners are shorter and paler and that half the muffin comes off in the paper when you peel it. I argue that it's easier to clean up if they're baked in the papers. So there. I defy thee, America's Test Kitchen!

Ok, meanwhile with the actual baking, I had to whisk the dry ingredients together. Easy, easy. In a different bowl, I had to mix together the wet ingredients. Also easy. By the way, did you know that there's sour cream in corn muffins? I didn't either! The last step was to fold the wet ingredients into the dry ones, being careful not to overmix. I am awesome at this. So it was no problem. Last step: portion into the muffin tin and bake. The whole process took me maybe 20 minutes before baking time. Hmm. That wasn't terribly interesting, was it? 

So let's discuss the taste. I happen to love corn muffins. I had never made them from scratch before though. I usually go with the good ol' Jiffy boxed stuff because, well, it's just so easy and yummy. So the true test was this: are homemade corn muffins any better than Jiffy corn muffins? On my tasting, I leaned towards them tasting basically the same as the Jiffy corn muffins. But what's the use of one woman's opinion? Oh, by the way, they tasted really yummy. Did I mention that yet? Anyway, I needed more opinions. 

I asked my boyfriend to taste them (since he requested them and all) and he said they were good but offered up no opinion on their comparison to Jiffy. Super helpful. So I brought in my corn muffin expert: my sister. She makes Jiffy a lot more often than I do and is more of a corn muffin fiend than I am. She was stuck with tasting day old muffins but as she put it, "I obviously know what a day old Jiffy tastes like." So in the end, with confidence, my sister concluded that they taste exactly the same as Jiffy. So, friends, given the option of Jiffy and homemade, this baker concludes that you should save yourself the time and effort and just go with the Jiffy. I guess this adventure was more of an academic success than anything else. At least the muffins tasted and looked delicious. Take a look: 

Next time, I'm picking the dish and it's going to be more complicated. I'm sick of it being easy! Which no doubt means that there's entertainment to come. 

A Disney Moment: Rescuers Down Under

Well, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that this movie ranked a 5/5 in this grouping. However, that's not because it was bad. It was just against some formidable opponents. In fact, I enjoyed Rescuers Down Under a great deal more than I enjoyed the Rescuers. It was prettier, it was smoother, the story made more sense. For once, we had a main character who is not completely and utterly stupid. Nice change of pace there. I felt that a bit too much time was spent focusing on John Candy as the bird. He just didn't read as a character in the movie, he read as John Candy. Amusing as that was, too much of the film got devoted to that notion. My only real critique was how screwed up it was for the evil dude to tell the mother that her son was eaten by alligators. I mean, that really sucks. That's it though. A fine film but not really much to write home about. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy

Welcome to the start of the summer edition of A Statistician Bakes! Ok, so maybe the summer edition is no different from the usual baking adventures but it's my way of saying that I'm back! After a super long hiatus that included finals, a trip to Disney World, my sister graduating college, a conference, and a two week long cold, I am finally back to baking. There were a couple of things that I baked that I forgot to blog about so I'll briefly touch on those in this entry as well. Meanwhile, this week begins my summer of unemployment baking! My summer will consist of baking, working on my dissertation, and studying for my general exam. I plan to get a bit more elaborate than just cookies. Time to take the next step into the wild blue yonder, as they say.

But first, a recap. While I was MIA from this blog, I baked 7 layer cookies from the Cake Boss cookbook and Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread from the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. The 7 layer cookies were actually pretty easy and involved making 5 small cakes (two white, 1 red, 1 green, 1 brown) and layering them with layers of Nutella in between and then coating them with chocolate. I didn't have many issues with this but the parchment paper that was on the bottom of the pans made one side of each of the cakes kind of greasy and I'm not sure why. A note for the future. Also, coating these with melted chocolate makes them ridiculously hard to cut without cracking the chocolate off. Lame. They tasted pretty good but they weren't exactly my cup of tea so I sent them all away to a friend who liked them and wasn't entirely sure if I had made them since they were all professional and complicated-looking. Yay! Starting to pass as a professional! Anywho, here they are:

Also, yes, they are pretty big cookies. I don't know how you're supposed to bite all those layers at once unless you have a really really huge mouth.

Moving on...

The other thing I made was Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread. This was pretty fun because I had to do some actual hand kneading and allow for rising time and all that nonsense. There was also some drama because I totally almost forgot the raisins. Whoopsie. The only eventful thing about this was the actual baking process. When I baked the bread, it looked like this:

Yeah, it freakin' grew. It was like the tiny loaf pan couldn't contain the monstrous bread. The end result of this was that I got my very first baking burn. Trying to remove this from the oven in this state was chaos and my hand managed to hit the rack and I got a tiny, tiny burn on my hand. It's gone now but it felt like a momentous occasion. Also, a raisin managed to escape into the bottom of my oven and totally burnt there. No, I don't know how and no, I haven't successfully cleaned it off completely yet. (It really burned on there!) I have another picture here to show you my swirling technique (recall the icebox pinwheel cookies of yore. It was like that.)

Yeah, my swirling still needs some work. I think tighter rolling is the key.

And now, on to the main event! I have spent the past two hours baking in almost complete silence. That's right, silence. Why would I do that? Well, because today is my boyfriend's 25th birthday and I decided this morning that I'm insane and I wanted to surprise him with a cake. So, I consult my books and find a nice, somewhat easy chocolate cake recipe. Then I look at my kitchen tools and realize that I completely left my cake pans back in New Jersey. Good job, right? But that's ok, plan easily amended: Cupcakes! Perfect, so I go about making the cupcake batter (without using a mixer, mind you because I am being SILENT) and the recipe I chose was for Dark Chocolate Cupcakes from the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. Have I mentioned yet that I love this cookbook? If I haven't, I should because it's totally awesome and has a billion great tips and pictures. Good good book.

Anyway, I mixed up the batter just fine and baked them no problem. Now, here's where you get to judge me a bit: I didn't make my own frosting. I know, I know, shame on me. But frankly, frosting out of the can is just as good as anything I would make if it's just a standard chocolate fudge frosting (which is what I used) and it wasn't worth the effort and I was trying to do this quickly and QUIETLY. So judge me if you like but that's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it.

What I did make was my own writing icing. I found a simple recipe for writing icing in the cookbook and it worked perfectly. I've never had an icing recipe work out quite so well for me. It was just the perfect consistency though and sweet but not too sweet and I had absolutely no problems with the piping bag which may in fact be a first for me. So, I used my mad piping bag skillz to create this masterpiece:

Work of art, right? Anyway, two hours and several unwashed bowls later (I didn't want to make any noise!) and now all I have to do is wait for him to wake up. Mission: accomplished. The only downside: It's noon and I'm staring at these cupcakes that I totally can't eat yet. Torture. I bet they're good though.

A Disney Moment: The Little Mermaid

A classic. Like most little girls, I love Little Mermaid. I was excited for a rewatch. And, in fact, Little Mermaid was only recently surpassed by Beauty and the Beast as my favorite Disney movie. After all, Belle is the best "princess" and Ariel is kinda stupid. But now, I have to say, Little Mermaid trumps Beauty and the Beast. Belle is still better than Ariel but as an entire film, I am forced to rank Little Mermaid with a 1/5 in this grouping.

And the reason is this: Ursula. She's freaking terrifying. She's the scariest Disney villain of all time. Ever. Those who are about to argue "But Frollo is the most evil!" are wrong. There are few children in the world who don't want to crap their pants when Ursula grows 60 or so feet. Her villain song is one of my favorites because so much happens during it. It's not just a song break; it moves the plot along while still being a catchy, intelligently-written song. Ursula is what makes this movie truly great.

Of course, the other songs are terrific as well. I'll happily say that all those songs make me smile. The pacing of the film is good. The animation is lovely. I actually think that it's a movie that will do well with a 3D re-release, mostly because of all of the sweeping oceanic landscapes and bright colors.

Anyway, I don't want to continue gushing but I loved watching this movie. It made me happy. Oh, and the hidden Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Kermit in the audience at the concert at the beginning of the film absolutely made my day. If you didn't know they existed, go watch again (or just look on youtube) because it's totally awesome.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Channeling My Inner Martha

I know, I know, I've been bad again. Baking has been happening, I swear! It's just that the blogging part hasn't been happening. Believe it or not, I've been actually doing work lately! Hang on, I'll wait for you to absorb the shock of that statement. Good now? Ok, good.

Like I said, there's been baking. In fact, there was baking during a very special visit from a friend who lives very far away. We made Martha's Ne Plus Ultra cookies. They were quite good but there isn't much to report besides me buying a $2 SlapChop at the Goodwill store to chop pecans because I don't have a food processor. And alas, I ate them all before I remembered to take a picture so you'll just have to take my word for it that they looked and tasted delicious. Oh, one note about these cookies: Martha seemed to think that the recipe made 8 cookies and I made about 30. No one wants a cookie that big.

So that's the Ne Plus Ultra cookie story (by the way, ne plus ultra just means "awesome cookie") and it wasn't very interesting so we'll move on to my attempt to make an Easter themed dessert. When considering what a good Easter dessert might be, I thought long and hard about what would capture the Easter spirit and then I just caved and Googled Easter desserts. Of course, Martha recipes came up with some of the most precious looking cakes ever. I decided to tackle one of her easier ones: Rich Chocolate Cake with Ganache Frosting and Truffle-Egg Nest. Yep. The recipe can be found here. Basically, it's just a chocolate cake with a precious shaved chocolate nest built on top with homemade truffle eggs in the center. Modification #1: I was not making truffle eggs from scratch. I just didn't have the energy or the drive to color egg-shaped truffles robin's egg blue. No freaking way. I bought some Cadbury eggs and called it a day on that one.

The next adventure, so to speak, was the search for the 7 inch cake pans. To give you some context, a standard round cake pan is 9 inches. We had one 8 inch pan (and several 9 inches) but no 7 inch. Oh, and a 6 inch is about the size of the top tier of a wedding cake. So off I went to hunt for the elusive 7 inch cake pan. I asked a neighbor to start with but alas, no 7 incher. I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Kohl's, AC Moore (on the day before Easter, mind you) and nothing. So before even beginning to bake, I was already frustrated. Not cool, Martha. Not cool. I decided to pick up two 8 inch pans for my collection and resolved to watch the cakes carefully to adjust the bake time.

Here's one cool thing about this cake: it's made entirely in a pot. Seriously, all you need is a pot and a whisk. Nothing too interesting to report in the baking process except that I perhaps should have whisked more vigorously in the last step to fluff the batter up more. Anywho, baked up the cakes and left them to cool for a while. Now, here comes another point of confusion: the recipe called for both a whipped ganache frosting and then another ganache topping but I did not realize that upon my first reading. Or second. Or third. By the time I did figure it out, I realized that I didn't have enough chocolate or heavy cream for the second ganache. Maybe I'm just stressed out but this was an extremely frustrating discovery. Eventually I got over it and iced the cake with the whipped ganache frosting and covered it with the thinner ganache. The cake itself came out looking quite professionally done, if I do say so myself (and I do.) I was initially saddened by what seemed like a waste of perfectly good ganache (I pretty much had to pour ganache over the whole cake and let the excess run into the bottom of a pan) but then my mom saved the day by scraping the ganache into a container for later use in strawberry-dipping.

Now, all of this is well and good from a baking standpoint. But now we get to the Martha-ness of the recipe. Anyone can make a simple chocolate cake. It takes a real pro to make a bird's nest out of chocolate. Here are the directions: "using a chef's knife, scrape milk chocolate bar at 90 degree angle, forming enough curls and shards to measure 1 1/2 cups." Sounds simple, right? Wrong. It took three masterminds to figure out that scraping down the chocolate only created tiny chocolate confetti. Eventually (and I do mean to imply that this took some time and some staring at a chocolate bar and some experimentation with potato peelers on chocolate), I discovered that instead of scraping, I could just chop thin slices of chocolate which yielded much better results. Then the last step was to build the nest. I was bad at this. My "nest" didn't look at all like a nest. My sister had to fix it for me. But whatever, I'm not the artistic one of the family. It came out pretty precious looking in the end. Here's a picture for your judgement:

As for the taste, it went over very well with my family on Easter. I thought it was a bit denser than it should have been but maybe that's just a personal preference. I bet having a 7 inch pan would have made it better. Stupid 7 inch pan.

A Disney Moment: Oliver and Company
I love Oliver and Company. I think it's adorable. And anyone who disagrees is wrong. Again, we see my affinity for cartoon cats and dogs coming out but I think it's a pretty well structured film. I like the pacing. I like the referrals to Oliver Twist. It's certainly not an original story but it's fun nonetheless. Certain moments really stuck with me. Small things like how Dodger struts every time he walks. And to me, a four-legged strut is a bit of an accomplishment. "Why Should I Worry?" is a really fun scene with a truly terrific song. The other musical high for me was "You and Me Together" which is just one of the sweetest things in the world. I may be biased because the girl is named Jenny but I just find that whole song endearing.

Let's see, what else? Oh, I was a bit surprised to discover that I didn't mind having the characters voiced by famous people. Bette Midler voicing the overdramatic show dog was especially perfect to me. Overall, I was just left with a happy feeling when the movie ended. I also really enjoyed the opening and closing landscapes of NYC. That all said, I'm still only giving this movie a 3/5. Why, you ask? Well, because, my friends, we are on the cusp of the Disney Renaissance! Great things to come. But Oliver and Company is still ranking a lot higher than the likes of Fox and the Hound, for example, despite its low group rating.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shame on the Blogger

Ah, it appears that I haven't posted anything in a month. Whoops. Sorry about that. In that time, the whole format of blogger has changed. Erg. So confused. So anyway, I'm back! I didn't really go anywhere but I guess I've been busy or unmotivated or just plain lazy so despite baking plenty, I've been remiss with my blog posts. So I think I'll just do a very brief catch-up on my projects and then we'll get back to something normal starting this week.

Like I said, I have been baking. But for a while I was making cookies from recipes I had already used. For instance, I made the Cake Boss peanut butter cookies to bring to a housewarming party. Or I made Martha's Snickerdoodles because my boyfriend really likes them. I didn't want to blog about stuff I had already done! That would've been boring. So I suppose I set a bad precedent for posting this month. Ok, enough of me trying to defend myself.

The first new thing that I've made lately was from Martha (naturally) and was a cookie called Buttered Rum Meltaways. These were a fairly uneventful cookie so I'll just give you the highlights. The first thing I noticed was that they have all the fun spices that are seen in pumpkin cookies. So they automatically smelled delicious. The second thing I noticed was that they have a lot of rum in them. Like, 1/4 cup. I mixed up all the ingredients and had to roll the cookies into two 1 1/4 inch logs of dough. That's a really small cookie. Like really small. So small that I triple checked to be sure I had the measurements correct and even watched a video of Martha rolling the dough from the Martha Stewart show. I even got out a ruler for this one! So, I just decided they are supposed to be tiny, bite-size cookies.

To put my laziness in perspective, these cookies had to be in the freezer for about 30 minutes and I left them for 3 days. All I had to do was slice and bake and I was too lazy to do it. Well, ok, slice, bake, and coat with powdered sugar. I thought they were decent cookies in the end but not really to my taste. My mom described them as "like a they're they're like a pie!" They're basically that gum from Willy Wonka that is a meal in a stick of gum. Anyway, decent, but not great. Here's a picture:

Next, I made Martha's giant chocolate sugar cookies for colloquium. The recipe was supposed to yield 8 cookies but that was impractical so I made about 4 dozen. Easy recipe. Nothing super interesting. Fine cookies but not great. I prefer the Death by Chocolate chocolate fudge cookies. I don't really ever feel the need to go back to these cookies. So, moving on. But here they are:

Lastly, my mom and I made Martha's Browned Butter Toffee Blondies. These are freakin' amazing. Probably my second favorite thing behind the Pecan Tassies. It wasn't a hard recipe but there were steps involved. First, we had to brown 2 1/2 STICKS of butter. That's a whole lot of butter. Anyway, we had to cook it in a saucepan until it was "browned," whatever that really means. It smelled good though. Then we had to mix that with a huge amount of sugar and brown sugar. From there, your standard flour, baking powder, salt, egg type stuff. Oh yeah, and vanilla. My mom kind of dumped the vanilla in instead of measuring carefully. That vanilla must have tried jumping from her hands or something. So there may have been a bit of extra vanilla. Oh well. And finally, a cup of toffee bits and a cup of chopped walnuts pecans. That's right, we made a substitution in a Martha recipe. I know that Martha knows best but sometimes in life you just don't want to have to pay for walnuts and you happen to have pecans in your house. Yep, that was indeed the thought process.

Anyway, Martha had instructed us to butter a pan, lay down a layer of parchment paper, and then butter the parchment paper. We initially resisted this direction but finally decided to trust Martha. It was a good choice. My goodness though, these things smell heavenly. They almost smell like maple syrup. My mom and I were supposed to let them cool completely and then flip the pan upside down to cut the blondies but we didn't even wait for them to cool before digging in with a knife and cutting off a slice. They're so so so good. I mean, amazing. So yummy. Especially warmed up. Mmmmm. I still have a few left and I'm excited to go home and eat one. Oh, we were supposed to use cookie cutters to make shapes. We didn't. That is all, here they are:

A Disney Moment: Great Mouse Detective
On to a new group of 5! Here we get into the Disney Renaissance with Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, Little Mermaid, Rescuers Down Under, and Beauty and the Beast. So, I first saw Great Mouse Detective fairly recently as it had somehow not been on my Disney radar as a kid. It's a pleasant enough movie. It sets a really nice tone with the dancing ballerina toy because the animation in that moment is just so smooth and lovely. But from there, without being a Sherlock Holmes fan, there just wasn't much that grabbed me. I could get the most general Sherlock Holmes references but I think a lot of the nuance was lost on me. So, it's possible that if I had read Sherlock Holmes I would have appreciated it more.

Meanwhile, I loved seeing some callbacks to old films. Namely, Dumbo in the toy shop and the lizard from Alice. It was just a sweet touch. Anyway, the final verdict is that it was entertaining but somewhat forgettable. As such, it warrants a 4/5 (you fiend!).

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We're Running Out of Thyme!

Happy Leap Day everyone! And what a joyous Leap Day it has been. To celebrate Leap Day, I decided to make something a little crazier than usual (because anything can happen on Leap Day) and finally make the Martha Stewart Cornmeal Thyme cookies. In anticipation of making these cookies, I had previously picked up some thyme and some Zante currants. The recipe specified dried currants. I combed every aisle of two supermarkets and didn't find a single thing labeled "dried currants" so I picked up the next best thing, Zante currants. Which, as it turns out, are the exact same thing as dried currants. Or at least that's what Wikipedia is telling me. Whatever, I didn't even know what currants were before now. Apparently they're like raisins.

Anyway, slightly stressful shopping aside, I was anxious to try a cookie that had such a seemingly weird mix of ingredients and moreover, was specified to be a tea cookie. This makes it perfect for colloquium where everyone is already having coffee or tea. So, this morning, I had to get my act together and make these cookies in time for colloquium. I was all ready to go and was pulling out the ingredients when I noticed one small detail that I had overlooked. The recipe calls for yellow cornmeal. I had cornstarch. A Google search told me in no uncertain terms that these are not the same thing. I suppose I should have guessed that. I have before seen homemade cornmeal. But, lacking corn to grind (and knowing that it makes a huge mess. Long story. It involves my college kitchen covered in some terrifying yellow paste. Don't ask.), I headed out to the store dressed in my blue and yellow Leap Day best.

Now though, I was really under the gun. I had only about an hour and a half to make the cookies and during part of that time, I had to be on a conference call. Rushing around my kitchen, I started creaming the butter and sugar and gathering the dry ingredients. The butter was not working well for me because one of the sticks of butter had come from the freezer. Whoops. Eventually it more or less got to the right consistency though. For once, I even combined the dry ingredients in a separate bowl instead of dumping them all in separately. I figured that it would be wise to really combine the cornmeal and the flour to ensure an even distribution in the dough. From there, the rest of making the dough was easy.

The last things to add were the currants and the thyme. At this point, I was already on the conference call and let me tell you, thyme was of the essence! Don't you groan at that pun, I've got a million of these. Anyway, the currants were easy to measure out, despite being all stuck together and sticky. It was the thyme that got kind of annoying. I was supposed to finely chop the thyme. But, I mean, it's thyme. It's already super duper tiny. So I didn't chop it. It was really a big thyme saver. Hehe.

Ok, ok, I'm done with those puns now. I popped the cookies in the oven and baked them without any incident. The recipe specified that I should use parchment paper but I think all of Martha's recipes do and I don't mind washing my pans so I didn't bother with the paper. I baked them all up, put them in a container to bring to colloquium, and checked my email one last time before walking out the door. Lo and behold, I discovered an email informing me of a snow day! It's a Leap Day miracle! So, no school for me and no colloquium so what do I do? Well, I grab a cookie, make myself a cup of tea, and snuggle in for a several hour marathon of Big Bang Theory, of course!

Oh, by the way, the cookies are quite good. Not very sweet but a nice, chewy texture and a lovely flavor. And I'm patting myself on the back because they look exactly like the picture. The only problem is that now I have a whole tin full of cookies and no colloquium to bring them to!

A Disney Moment: Black Cauldron
To further quote 30 Rock in this blog post, "Oh good God, Lemon Black Cauldron!" It very well might be worse than Sword in the Stone. And that's really saying something. My sister and I actually took a break halfway through this movie! We never do that! But let me bring you back to the beginning...

The beginning confused us. Why? Because we were slightly distracted and then all of a sudden, we're into the actual movie and we had missed all of the credits! We love reading the credits! So we rewound the movie. Watching carefully, we discovered that no, we had not missed the credits. The credits are just at the end for the first time. So we got off on the wrong foot with this movie to begin with.

But it didn't get much better from there. The plot reeked of Lord of the Rings, I couldn't remember any of the character names, and the sidekick creature, Gurgi, was entirely distracting because we couldn't figure out what the hell he was supposed to be. Is he a dog? Is he a mythical creature? Is he Gollum? Regardless of what he was, he was super annoying. Oddly enough, after watching this movie, we met a dog that looked pretty much exactly like Gurgi. The whole movie just felt like torture to watch.

I will say that all of the evil stuff is pretty freakin terrifying. It was like all the worst parts of Fantasia in several really terrifying sequences. I can see why this movie was rated PG. In fact, while I was watching, I even questioned that rating because the whole movie was pretty dark. Ok, rant over. 5/5 and we're done with this block of films. Ugh. Black Cauldron.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Hate the Smell of Anise in the Morning

Welcome back! This morning, in an effort to make quick and easy colloquium cookies, I decided to head back to Martha and make Anise Drops. I partially picked these because they're on the page opposite the Cornmeal Thyme cookies (coming soon to a blog near you) and partially because I have no idea what anise is and it sounded intriguing.

So, bright and early this morning, I started with the baking. First I had to whisk up 3 eggs until they were fluffy. I had some trouble cracking the eggs. They split the wrong way when I cracked them. It was odd. No shell though, I was very careful. Fluffed those, added some sugar, added some anise extract. I knew the second that I opened the bottle of anise extract that I wouldn't like these cookies. Anise extract smells like licorice and I hate licorice. Not good. But I powered through and added in the baking powder, salt, and flour and that was all the ingredients.

For the next step, I had to pipe the cookies onto the baking pans. Stupid piping. I was instructed to use either a really large tip for the pastry bag or just use the coupling to pipe. So I didn't put a tip in at all. The piping didn't exactly go poorly this time but, as usual, I made a mess. I'm always good with the first filling of the bag but when the time comes to refill it, I always make a mess. Oh well.

Also, once again, I made the cookies too big. I was supposed to get 4 dozen cookies and instead got 3 dozen. Whoops. I can't judge what a 1 1/4 inch circle looks like at all. Regardless, I baked them up and let them cool and the whole thing was uneventful.

I will say this: I dreaded tasting these cookies. I knew I wouldn't like them. But for your sake, dear readers, I suffered through a taste of anise cookie. It tasted as I expected. Like licorice. Gross. On the bright side, the consistency of the cookie was spot on. Martha said they would have a crisp shell and a soft middle and that was accurate. So, success on the baking front, failure on the tasting front. I brought all of the cookies to colloquium so that I could get that awful smell out of my house. Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating about the smell. A little. Here's a picture of the cookies:

I was all set to post this one this afternoon but held off until this evening. So as a result, you get bonus baking! Sometimes, when life gets you down (like when you spend time making cookies you don't like), you just want a chocolate chip cookie. So I made chocolate chip cookies. Nothing fancy. Just some good ol' fashioned Nestle Toll House. I've made these so many times that I've practically memorized the recipe by now so there's nothing to tell about baking them. But let me just say, a chocolate chip cookie can really make your day. I will now go continue watching Sleepless in Seattle.

A Disney Moment: The Fox and the Hound
I don't even know how to properly rant about this movie. The fox and hound (I don't even remember their names) are cute when they're little. I like the "Best of Friends" song. But the whole movie is just a mess. The end especially doesn't really make sense. There are no real consequences for the evil hunter man and the fox and hound just sort of reach an agreement that fox gets to live but hound gets to keep hunting foxes? It was a straight up mess. But still less of a mess than the Rescuers. 3/5. That is all. No, wait, not quite all. For a more interesting story, see the plot synopsis of Daniel P. Mannix's Fox and the Hound that the movie was based on. It sounds like Disney should have stuck to the original novel.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Piece of [Cheese]Cake

I finally had a good excuse to make a cheesecake! Yay! Last weekend, in celebration of my aunt's birthday, I decided to make a recipe from Death By Chocolate that I've been dying to make: White Chocolate Cheesecake. This is actually a fairly simple recipe but it takes quite a long time to make. So, for the party on Saturday evening, I started making this cheesecake on Thursday.

Once again, we have a tale of substitutions. I was supposed to make Deep Dark Chocolate Fudge cookies to use for the crust. I didn't feel like making those cookies for the fourth time. Maybe some other time, but not now. So I decided to substitute a plain old graham cracker crust instead. There ended up being two problems with that. The first was that I needed 2.5 cups of graham cracker crumbs. I ended up only having slightly less than 2 cups. Hmm. I refused to go back out to the store but I found chocolate graham crackers in the cabinet. So, I figured, mixing them couldn't be bad, right? Right. So that's what I did. Not an insurmountable problem but a hurdle nonetheless.

The second, and slightly more significant, problem was that I was following the recipe in the book for the graham cracker to butter ratio. I suppose that crushed cookies have a very different quality compared to graham crackers because the recipe called for 3 tablespoons of butter. After melting the butter and mixing it in, the crumbs should have been able to be molded. Not a chance. I ended up using a whole stick of butter for my crust. Ultimately, I really should have looked for a different recipe for a crust instead of just guessing but it worked out fine in the end and I was too lazy to look up a recipe.

So, the crust goes into the freezer to chill while I make the filling. The filling is basically a ton of cream cheese, white chocolate, and eggs. After measuring out 1 3/4 lbs of cream cheese (and mixing it a little to soften it up better), I set up the chocolate in the double boiler to melt. A bit of heavy cream and EIGHTEEN ounces of white chocolate. That's a lot of chocolate. And, I learned my lesson about using good white chocolate instead of crappy white chocolate so I got some nice Ghirardelli's for the occasion. While that melted, I mixed up the cream cheese, sugar, and salt, followed by a half dozen eggs. Literally. I should point out that during all of this, I was trying to work as quickly as possible because it was already about 4 pm and the cheesecake takes about 7 hours to bake and cool. As it was, by my calculations, I'd still be dealing with this cheesecake at midnight. My calculations were correct.

Anyway, I poured in the melted chocolate and some vanilla extract and voila! That was all the ingredients. I poured the mixture into the springform pan and was ready to bake. Now check out these baking instructions: "Place a baking sheet with sides partially filled with 4 cups of hot water on the bottom rack of the oven. Place the springform pan on the center rack of the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 250° and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 225° and bake for 15 minutes. Then lower the temperature to 200°, and bake the cheesecake until the internal temperature of the cheesecake filling reaches 170°, about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and allow the cheesecake to remain in the oven undisturbed for an additional 2 hours. Remove from the oven and cool at room temperature for 1 hour. Refrigerate the cheesecake for 12 hours (do not remove the cake from the pan)." Do you understand now why I was in such a hurry? I wanted this cheesecake to be perfect and it had to be pretty constantly monitored.

Sometime around midnight, I moved the cheesecake into the fridge to chill. My boyfriend and I both worriedly noted that the cake still seemed well, not liquidy, but definitely not as solid as one would expect from a cheesecake. I figured that maybe it would firm up in the fridge (since it would be hanging out in there for at least twelve hours).

It chilled longer than twelve hours because on Friday I went to the 2012 USA Curling National Tournament in Pennsylvania. Yes, that's right. I went to watch curling for a full day. And it was awesome. Don't judge.

On Saturday morning, there was one final step to complete. I had to coat the cake with some ganache. I had a ton of Ultimate Ganache in my freezer so I figured that I would substitute the Ultimate for the plain old Chocolate Ganache that the recipe called for. Plus, my crust was a lot less chocolatey than the recipe had specified so it couldn't hurt, right? So, I just have to re-melt my ultimate ganache and...oh yeah, crap, I left it in Connecticut. And I'm in New Jersey. Score. So what does the baker do? She makes more, of course! That process went smoothly so there wasn't much to tell.

Finally, it was time to cut and eat the cake. Sadly, I forgot to bring candles so we had to make do with a tealight placed on top of the cake. Nevertheless, we cut into it and...horror. You could see the fear in everyone's eyes. It did not, in fact, firm up as it chilled. The cheesecake ended up being more like a pudding in the middle than a cake. We passed slices around anyway and I dove right in for a taste. And it was delicious. I mean, really heavenly good. I ate two slices. And you all know that I don't really have a sweet tooth. So pudding or not, the cake was a hit because the taste was so good. My theories on the consistency include a) the huge amount of melted white chocolate just makes it that way and b) my mom's oven temperatures aren't correct. But here's a couple pictures:

A couple of notes: First, I could have used some more graham cracker crust because (as you can see) it didn't make it all the way up the sides of the whole cake. Second, I was supposed to top the cake with white chocolate curls. That didn't happen because I'm lazy and because I didn't have a block of white chocolate with which to make the white chocolate curls. Lastly, on some of my more recent projects: my mom and great aunt adored the pignoli cookies and said they were perfect. That's good because I hated them. There was consensus that the Martha snickerdoodles were better, though the JoC ones weren't bad. And, the highlight of my week: after eating a couple of snickerdoodles at pre-colloquium tea, one of the professors exclaimed that the cookies were not i.i.d. and discussed with another professor whether they were mixture normal or stratified cookies. If you get that, you're a nerd, and you have my pity.

A Disney Moment: The Rescuers
Here we go with a couple of awful movies. The Rescuers had a couple of fundamental flaws and generally was just sort of...there. Nothing exceptional. Nothing to make you remember it. Certainly nothing to warrant a sequel (unless the purpose of the sequel is to give the protagonists a second chance to get it right). The premise isn't bad: a UN of mice rescuing kids. The main problem though, is that you don't even really see the girl they're rescuing until over halfway through the movie. So you can never develop an emotional attachment to her. And then, when you do see her, she comes up with her own plan for her rescue. She doesn't even need the mice! She did everything herself and she was occasionally just really dumb.

Also, why are all the animals the same size??? The mouse, rabbit, owl, turtle, and mole are all exactly the same size! That doesn't make any sense! That fact annoyed me quite a bit so this movie ranks a 4/5.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Last Snickerdoodle Standing

And the blitz of baking blog posts continues! For a while now I've had Snickerdoodles bookmarked to be baked at some point. There are three reasons for this. First, they're quick and easy to make. I could tell that just by looking at the recipe (which doesn't include any weird ingredients). Second, I don't think I've ever had a snickerdoodle in my life. I didn't even quite know what they were even though I had heard of them with popular enthusiasm. And third, snickerdoodle is just a funny word. A word that this blog doesn't recognize as even being a word. Highly inconvenient.

Smooth baking plan for colloquium cookies, right? If you think so, you must be forgetting a key quality of the author/baker. Namely, that I'm crazy and things can never be easy for me. Here's the issue with the snickerdoodles: I have two recipes for them. I have the classic Joy of Cooking recipe and I have the Martha Stewart recipe. Knowing that I had both recipes, I consulted the books to see if they're basically the same. They're not. I mean, they're not even close to being the same. Not only do they have different proportions of butter, sugar, and flour (which really are the main components of the snickerdoodle), but they also have completely different ingredients! Seriously, JoC calls for baking soda and cream of tartar (by the way, who even knows what that is?) and Martha calls for baking powder! Baking powder is what causes cookies to grow and get fluffy so I automatically knew that these would be two different cookies. So what is the baker to do? Which should I choose?

Both, of course.

I wanted the opportunity to really compare the two cookies. I don't think I could have done that if I made one cookie one week and the other a few weeks later. My memory is definitely not that good. So I decided to cook both for a good old-fashioned taste test. And on top of that, it was a race against the clock because I only had about 3 hours before I had to leave for class/colloquium. Sounds like a challenge to me! May the best cookie win!

I started out with Martha's recipe. Let me tell you, I was like a baking machine. Everything was moving like clockwork. Like I said, snickerdoodles are easy. The really fun part came in when I had to roll the dough into balls and roll the balls in a cinnamon-sugar mixture. It was fun because it reminded me of making monkey bread. I haven't had monkey bread in ages and it is so so so good. I should make myself some monkey bread. Anyway, back on topic, Martha warned me to leave a lot of space for the cookies because they really grow as they bake. As a result, I only put 6 cookies on each baking pan. They did in fact grow but they didn't run into each other and they puffed up rather dramatically. Definitely a thick cookie. I'd say on average, they're about two inches high.

While those were baking, I rolled out all of the Martha snickerdoodle dough and put them on a plate before baking so that I could clean the bowl and get started on the JoC snickerdoodle dough. I told you, I'm a baking machine! By the time Martha's snickerdoodles were done and cooling, I was already done with the JoC dough. I decided to cut the JoC recipe in half because the yield was 36 cookies and I didn't have that much time to bake them. The recipe was easy to cut in half though so no harm there. The only harm came in baking them. They really really spread out on the pan. Martha warned me, JoC didn't. Hmmm. I'm having some trust issues with JoC.

Pretty much (as I expected) we got fluffy, soft cookies from Martha and thin, crispy cookies from JoC. Here's a couple of pictures so you can see the difference. I tried to angle the camera so you could see the different heights but let's face it, I'm no photographer:

In case you couldn't tell, the one on the left is Martha's. Now, on to the taste test! I tasted Martha's first. I even took notes on the taste! I was very scientific about this. I think I need a hobby from my hobby. Anyway, Martha's cookies had a very smooth taste. I can't think of a better way to describe it. It's buttery and feels like it melts in your mouth. It has a tiny bit of crisp on the outside but then it gives way to a nice, cakey center. Sweet, but not overpoweringly sweet with just the slightest whisper of cinnamon ("cinnamon!").

Next up was the JoC cookie. Definitely crispy and crunchy. Less sweet than Martha's but also less flavor. It mostly tastes like the doneness of the bottom. By that I mean, the cookies weren't burned by any stretch of the imagination, but it's that almost caramelized sugar taste on the bottom. They're not bad. But they're just not as good as Martha's.


Martha Stewart Snickerdoodles.

Excited by the results of my experiment, I cleaned up my kitchen and put my cookbooks away. While I was doing that, I glanced at the Pillsbury Best Cookies cookbook. They have yet another recipe for snickerdoodles! Again, completely different! How can there be so many recipes for one cookie? So, in the end, Martha wins for now but may be challenged another day.

A Disney Moment: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Ok, I'm about to make a very unpopular statement: I'm not crazy about Winnie the Pooh. And especially not this movie. I thought it was sort of boring. And overly childish. And mildly terrifying with the winking stuffed Pooh at the end. Throughout the movie, I found myself trying to read the words in the book instead of watching the animation. I really can't explain why it didn't grab me. The music is pleasant enough. The animation is fine. I actually love how well the storybook is integrated into the story (as well as the narration). Eeyore is probably the most unconventional character in a kids' movie and I always liked Tigger and Piglet as a kid. But I just couldn't get into it.

That all said, it's still ranking a 2/5. Think about that. That must mean that we have three real duds coming up. And we do. We actually have a movie that rivals Sword in the Stone for my least favorite film coming up. So, something to look forward to.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Half the Cost, Twice the Thinking

And with barely enough time for my mixing bowl to dry, we're back! In fact, we're back to the Cake Boss cookbook. The reason I ended up baking practically back-to-back is because these cookies needed to rest overnight. And what are these cookies, you ask? Why, Pignoli cookies, of course! For those of you who are significantly less Italian, pignoli cookies are pine nut cookies. I honestly don't think I've ever had one before so I've been looking forward to these for a while now.

To start with, I decided to halve the recipe. Here's why: the recipe calls for 1 pound and 9 ounces of almond paste and 1 1/2 POUNDS of pine nuts. Now, almond paste isn't really easy to find and it's not cheap. And pine nuts are really not cheap. And remember, I'm a broke grad student. As it was, making 24 cookies instead of 48 was stretching my wallet. I don't say this to complain. It's just a caution to those who want to follow in my footsteps and make these cookies. The ingredient cost is high.

That all said, halving the recipe was not without its hurdles. The almond paste part went fine (think of it as a substitute for butter in cookies). The powdered sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon halved just fine. But the recipe called for 1 1/4 cups sugar. I don't have a 1/8 cup measure. So I eyeballed it. What else was I supposed to do? Convert 1/8 cup to tablespoons? Not happening. Similarly, the recipe called for 1 tablespoon of honey and I don't have a 1/2 tablespoon measure. Do they even make those? In any case, I eyeballed that too. Don't look at me like that! I'm lazy, remember?

After adding all of that (in one single step), I had to "paddle until smooth with no lumps remaining". No lumps, you say? How is that even possible? There's nothing wet except 1/2 tsp vanilla and 1/2 tbsp honey! I paddled much longer than specified (in fact, I probably over-mixed the ingredients) and eventually, there were very small, equal-sized lumps. It was basically a crumbly dough so I don't know how else it should have looked. Anyway, the last thing to add was the egg whites. The recipe called for 5 extra-large egg whites. So halve that. Hmm. Half an egg white? Really? That one you actually do have to eyeball and there's definitely nothing I could have done about that. Dividing by two is stressful.

Now comes my favorite part: a pastry bag. Who here remembers the last time I had to deal with a pastry bag and how stressful it was? I do! As a result, I took this whole step as slowly and as carefully as possible. First, I cut two pieces of parchment paper on which I had to pipe the cookies. They kept rolling up in an obnoxious manner so I had to weigh the corners down with various kitchen knickknacks (including, but not limited to, a steak knife). Then, I had to fit my pastry bag with a #6 plain tip. Fun story about my pastry bag. It's a lovely canvas bag and it came in a little kit with a bunch of decorating tips and for the first 3 months that I had it, I couldn't figure out how to properly affix the tips. I tried a lot and the directions didn't make any sense to me. My mommy had to show me how and then I felt stupid. Dark times.

Aside over, back to the #6 plain tip. Looking for the #6, looking for the #6, why, oh why, don't I have a #6? I have a dozen decorating tips. I have #2 and #4 plain tips. I have fancy flower tips. I have no #6 plain tips. Perfect. Deducing that the hole for the #6 was probably larger than that of the #4, I picked a shaped tip that had what I considered to be a large enough hole to squeeze the dough out of. I ended up going with the #96 tip. Who knew that a person could ramble for a whole paragraph about decorating tips?

After stressing out over decorating tips, I filled the pastry bag (which was surprisingly not the worst) and was instructed to pipe the dough into circles 2 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches high. I had some trouble making circles at first. They turned out kind of squiggly. Then I realized that I had to a) take it slow and b) not hold the pastry bag so high. But the 1 1/2 inch height made me nervous. My cookies definitely looked too thin. So I ended up piping a second layer on top of my cookies. Piping is a pain. It hurts my hands. In the end though, it didn't end up being so bad. I was one cookie short of my intended goal of 24 cookies but that's still much closer than usual for me.

Wow, long blog post, so many steps. For those of you paying attention, you'll realize that we still need to add some pine nuts! I was instructed to spread the pine nuts out on a baking sheet and then pick up the cookie-covered parchment paper and invert it over the nuts. Press down into the nuts and lift up and put aside. I really wish I had another pair of hands helping me. I was very afraid that the cookies would fall off the parchment paper and it was hard to control where the cookies went on the pan. And, in fact, I should have spread out the pine nuts better because on the second flip, some of the cookies landed on the pan instead of on the pine nuts. As a result, I made a mess (as usual) and ended up pressing several pine nuts into cookies by hand.

Let rest overnight. Whew.

I baked the cookies and they had a really interesting aroma. Not as good as the oatmeal applesauce cookies but definitely interesting. It was probably the cinnamon and pine nuts. They looked nice, they smelled nice but sadly, I don't like them. I tried one and I practically spat it out. Maybe it's just me though. So the jury's still out on the Pignoli cookies. Here's a picture:

Oh, and by the way, I'm not the only one who can't divide by two. At the end of the recipe, there's a note that says that since you won't use all the pine nuts, you could use half as much and press the nuts in by hand. So, instead of using the 5 cups (about 1 1/2 lbs), you could use 2.5 cups (about 1 1/4 lbs). Yup. 1 1/4 is obviously half of 1 1/2. If the baker and an editor can't divide by two, I shouldn't be expected to either. So there.

A Disney Moment: Robin Hood
I LOVE Robin Hood! 1/5! Possibly first out of all so far! Well, more like it's a three-way tie between Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, and Robin Hood at this point. Still, what an awesome movie! I suppose I should at least explain why I love this movie so much. First off, the opening credits. It's hamster dance, people! The song is great, seeing all of the characters during the credits is great, and the whole thing is just a fun way to set the tone. I especially love the minstrel rooster as the narrator.

The whole movie has good pace. We establish the characters early and quickly. The driving conflict is obvious and we even get a love story that doesn't completely halt the progress of the plot and instead incorporates the love story as part of the conflict (i.e. using Maid Marian as bait to catch Robin Hood).

The animation throughout is pretty solid. Not quite the works of art that say, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty were but definitely solid. I especially love the effect of the waterfall during the love song. And speaking of songs, I loved all of them. From the humorous "Phony King of England" to the lazy but jaunty "Oo-de-lally" to the sweet but thankfully brief "Love" to the absolutely heartbreaking "Not in Nottingham" it's just perfection. Honestly, as a kid, I remember getting restless during Not in Nottingham but as an adult, it almost made me cry Pixar-style. It was just a really heart wrenching scene that I hadn't paid much attention to before.

Aside from all that, there are small things that really put the movie over the top like Richard the Lionheart being a lion. The snide remarks by Hiss, the snake. Archery! (I love archery.) I honestly loved every second of the movie and really want to watch it again right now. A+ to Robin Hood.